Chinese Stories/Pangu

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Portrait of Pangu from Sancai Tuhui

Christians believe that God created the world, and most scientists blame it on the big bang. China has a version of its own: A man who lay in the universe, dormant for years!

The story[edit]

In the beginning there was nothing in the universe except a formless chaos. However this chaos coalesced into a world egg for about 18,000 years. Within it, the perfectly opposed principles of Yin and Yang became balanced and Pangu emerged (or woke up) from the egg. Pangu is usually depicted as a primitive, hairy giant with horns on his head and clad in furs. Pangu set about the task of creating the world: he separated Yin from Yang with a swing of his giant axe, creating the Earth (murky Yin) and the Sky (clear Yang). To keep them separated, Pangu stood between them and pushed up the Sky. This task took 18,000 years; with each day the sky grew ten feet (3 meters) higher, the Earth ten feet wider, and Pangu ten feet taller. In some versions of the story, Pangu is aided in this task by the four most prominent beasts, namely the Turtle, the Qilin, the Phoenix, and the Dragon.

After the 18,000 years had elapsed, Pangu was laid to rest. His breath became the wind; his voice the thunder; left eye the sun and right eye the moon; his body became the mountains and extremes of the world; his blood formed rivers; his muscles the fertile lands; his facial hair the stars and milky way; his fur the bushes and forests; his bones the valuable minerals; his bone marrows sacred diamonds; his sweat fell as rain; and the fleas on his fur carried by the wind became the fish and animals throughout the land. Nüwa the Goddess then used the mud of the water bed to form the shape of humans. These humans were very smart since they were individually crafted. Nüwa then became bored of individually making every human so she started putting a rope in the water bed and lettings the drops of mud that fell from it become new humans. These small drops became new humans, not as smart as the first.

Origin[edit]

Three main views emerge to describe the origin of the Pangu myth. The first is that the story is indigenous, and developed or was transmitted through time to Xu Zheng. The evidence for this is slender.

Senior Scholar Wei Juxian states that the Pangu story is derived from Western Zhou Dynasty stories 1000 years earlier. He cites the story of Zhong and Li in the "Chuyu" section of the ancient classics Guoyu. In it, the King Zhao of Chu asked Guanshefu a question: "What did ancient classic "Zhou Shu" mean by the sentence that Zhong and Li caused the heaven and earth to disconnect from each other?" The "Zhou Shu" sentence he refers to is about an earlier person, Luu Xing, who is having a conversation with the King Mu of Zhou. King Mu's reign is much earlier and dates to about 1001 to 946 BC. In their conversation, they discuss the "disconnection" between heaven and earth.

An indirect but possibly more substantive conclusion is that China is unique in not "creating" its creator. In this view, Xu Zheng or a relatively recent predecessor, perpetuates the Pangu myth from other cultural influences.

Professor Qin Naichang, head of the Guangxi Institute for Nationality Studies proposes the myth originated in Laibin city, Guangxi, in the center of the Pearl River Valley. He believes that there are older stories of Pangu from this region and that they originally involved two people. He suggests China has no myth about the creation of the universe and that the Chinese mythology of Pangu had come from India, Egypt, or Babylon. Apparently, this story mingled in with the origin stories of other cultures, eventually changing into the later narrative more popular today.

This is Professor Qin's reconstruction of the true creation myth preceding the myth of Pangu. Note that it is not actually a creation myth:

A brother and his sister became the only survivors of the prehistoric Deluge by crouching in a gourd that floated on water. The two got married afterwards, and a mass of flesh in the shape of a whetstone was born. They chopped it and the pieces turned into large crowds of people, who began to reproduce again. The couple were named 'Pan' and 'Gou' in the Zhuang ethnic language, which stand for whetstone and gourd respectively.

Paul Carus wrote:

P’an-Ku: The basic idea of the yih philosophy was so convincing that it almost obliterated the Taoist cosmology of P’an-Ku who is said to have chiseled the world out of the rocks of eternity. Though the legend is not held in high honor by the literati, it contains some features of interest which have not as yet been pointed out and deserve at least an incidental comment.

P’an-Ku is written in two ways: one means in literal translations, “basin ancient”, the other “basin solid”. Both are homophones, i.e., they are pronounced the same way; and the former may be preferred as the original and correct spelling. Obviously the name means “aboriginal abyss,” or in the terser German, Urgrund, and we have reason to believe it to be a translation of the Babylonian Tiamat, “the Deep.”

The Chinese legend tells us that P’an-Ku’s bones changed to rocks; his flesh to earth; his marrow, teeth and nails to metals; his hair to herbs and trees; his veins to rivers; his breath to wind; and his four limbs became pillars marking the four corners of the world, -- which is a Chinese version not only of the Norse myth of the Giant Ymir, but also of the Babylonian story of Tiamat.

Illustrations of P’an-Ku represent him in the company of supernatural animals that symbolize old age or immortality, viz., the tortoise and the crane; sometimes also the dragon, the emblem of power, and the phenix, the emblem of bliss.

When the earth had thus been shaped from the body of P’an-Ku, we are told that three great rivers successively governed the world: first the celestial, then the terrestrial, and finally the human sovereign. They were followed by Yung-Ch’eng and Sui-Jen (i.e., fire-man) the later being the Chinese Prometheus, who brought the fire down from heaven and taught man its various uses.

The Prometheus myth is not indigenous to Greece, where it received the artistically classical form under which it is best known to us. The name, which by an ingenious afterthought is explained as “the fore thinker,” is originally the sanskrit pramantha and means “twirler” or “fire-stick,” being the rod of hard wood which produced fire by rapid rotation in a piece of soft wood.

We cannot deny that the myth must have been known also in Mesopotamia, the main center of civilization between India and Greece, and it becomes probable that the figure Sui-Jen has been derived from the same prototype as the Greek Prometheus.

Other Pangu myths[edit]

Pangu is also honored as the creator of the world in Buyei legend, but in addition, he is also honored as the ancestor of Buyei people. According to the Buyei legend, Pangu became an expert in rice farming after creating the world, and subsequently married the daughter of the Dragon King, and that was the beginning of the Buyei people. The daughter of the Dragon King and Pangu had a son named Xinheng but later, the son disrespected his mother, and the angry mother returned to heaven and never came down, despite the repeated pleas of her husband and son. Pangu was forced to remarry and eventually died on the sixth day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar and Xinheng's nightmare had begun. The stepmother treated Xinheng badly and almost killed him, and the angry Xinheng threatened to destroy the rice harvest of his stepmother. Realizing her mistake, the stepmother made peace with Xinheng and since then, on every sixth day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar, they paid their respect to Pangu. The day became an important traditional Buyei holiday for ancestral worship. This legend of creation is one of the main characteristics that distinguishes Buyei from Zhuang.